Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti has apologised for her for her "raamzade versus haraamzade" remark and it’s hopefully back to work for the House. But a Films Division documentary on MF Husain from 1976, A Painter of Our Time, that surfaced on December 11 on Facebook comes as a stark reminder that beyond her offensive vulgarity, truth is often complicated and not a label-driven binary.
A documentary by Santi P Chowdhury, former assistant to Satyajit Ray, the film shows us Husain listening to Goswami Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas being read aloud, and drawing from its narrative as he hears, in a Marwari haveli in Hyderabad; it shows his Ramayan paintings paraded in celebratory procession, it shows him watching folk performances of the epic amidst villagers, with his Ramayan paintings as the backdrop. It shows a manufactured engagement that nevertheless has an authenticity to it because the Ramayan narrative paintings came out of it.
However, this is not an innocent film. It is not really the secular Congress triumph it is projected as, but an appropriation, for it does not mention that Husain’s engagement with the Ramayana was sparked by Indira Gandhi’s opponent, Dr Ram Manohar Lohia, as Husain himself reportedly revealed in 2004. Remember, the film was made in 1976 when the Emergency, with all its atrocities against the people of India, was on full blast and tight censorship was in place, and in any case, like all Films Division products, this was a made-to-order ministry film.
In June 1975, the very month the Emergency slammed down on India, Husain had painted and later very publicly presented to Indira Gandhi a sycophantic triptych of her as "Durga", almost blasphemous to traditional Hindu eyes, but lavishly praised by a sycophantic biographer. It is an embarrassment that Husain’s present liberal champions cannot explain away easily.
Another awkward fact about Husain and the entire minority question that may quietly be edited from neo-narratives is that Husain got it from both Muslims and Hindus on religious grounds.
The All India Ulema Council supported by a bunch of orthodox Indian Muslim organisations like the Milli Council, All-India Muslim Council, Raza Academy, Jamiat Ulema-e-Hind and Jamaat-e-Islami objected to the lyrics of the qawwali in his film Meenaxi in 2004 (and Italian-born Odissi dancer Ileana Citaristi was very upset that she did not get proper credit for the choreography of the song sequence). It was an interesting film in many ways and that particular Pandora's box was opened by Muslims. Husain had to withdraw the film from the cinemas soon after its release in early 2005. The hindutvists, who had begun Husain-bashing in the mid-90s, got after him again with doubled force in 2006 and the pity is that no neo-narrative may adequately convey that mainstream Hindus were in fact the biggest buyers of his work and begged him to design their houses, wedding cards, saris... everybody wanted a Husain, more Husains.
So he actually got it from both sides, from persons cut from the same cloth and because many people, of whatever community, were jealous of his fame, success and popularity. Also, popular narrative has it that Husain died in exile pining for his motherland because of hindutvist extremists. I have heard from an art-collector with impeccable credentials that, yes, while the cases against him at home were a big cause of stress and grief, he actually took Qatari citizenship for tax reasons!
Truth has many shades and Husain is part of its sunlight and shadow as much as anyone, just as the old Congress documentary now circulating on social media is part of the chiaroscuro of our history.